The lights dimmed exactly when the show was due to begin, yet a slow handclap went around the auditorium. A slow handclap? Give the guy a break! He’s only 89 after all. But then Charles Aznavour came on stage, dapper in a black suit, remarkably sprightly for one who released his first studio album 60 years ago, and the audience leapt to its feet in a standing ovation. Aha. So this is how they do it in France.
It was Aznavour’s first UK concert in 25 years, but the number of compatriots present in the Royale Salle d’Albert gave it the feel of a homeland gig. A man near the front held a banner reading “Bravo Charles! Merci”. When the singer threw his white handkerchief from the stage during “La Bohème”, a middle-aged man and woman tussled over it as though fighting for a holy relic. Cue gasps from the audience. Mon dieu! (The woman won.)
The show was well rehearsed. Routines such as Aznavour’s waltz around the stage during “The Old-Fashioned Way”, as though dancing with a ghostly partner, have been a staple of his act for many years. The stage patter (in English) was also honed, much of it read from an autocue. Aznavour, self-deprecating amid the adulation, joked about the state of his memory as he approaches his 91st year.
In a sense the event was as much about applauding him as witnessing him perform. The “French Frank Sinatra” is one of the last survivors of a vanished history of pop music, a living link to the era of Edith Piaf – his great patron, who took him on tour with her after she heard him sing in 1946. Like Sinatra, he also had an impressive side-career as an actor, best known for his 1960 starring role in Truffaut’s Shoot the Pianist. In short, the grand old man of chanson could have croaked the phone book at the Albert Hall and earned another standing ovation.
But the voice hasn’t disappeared yet. He took a while to warm up. Opening song “Le Temps” had none of the free-flowing exuberance of the original recorded version from 1964, his backing band’s chintzy beat seemingly designed not to overwhelm the singer’s vocals. He sounded reedy and husky, a return, he claimed in one of his asides, to the timbre of his youth: “When I was young I had this voice.”
Aznavour didn’t add that when he was young he didn’t like his voice, having grown up with a paralysed vocal cord. “My shortcomings are my voice, my height, my gestures, my lack of culture and education, my frankness and my lack of personality,” he once stated in a lacerating moment of self-criticism. In his mind a songwriter foremost, he had to work hard to make himself into a singer. He learnt to inhabit a song, to act it as a story – a talent that hasn’t deserted him.
He sang “The Sound of Your Name” with a dramatic flourish, hands grabbing at the air as though trapping the moment. His well-stocked store of sad songs also brought out the best in him, crooning softly about “le temps perdu” in “Sa Jeunesse”, which he wrote in 1942. A pianist and accordionist were to the fore; the syrupy arrangements that cropped up elsewhere were absent.
By the time he reached the final stages of the 100-minute set, investing “What Makes a Man” and “La Bohème” with theatrical emotion, Aznavour was in full flight. It wasn’t just his reputation that deserved the acclaim at the end.